By Poly Pantelides
Despite a bit of initial grumbling about the changes in the health system and the introduction of hospital charges on Thursday, most visitors, to Nicosia General at least, were positive.
Just a few days in, the new measures seem to be working well. Health minister Petros Petrides reported a reduction in patients while Nicosia General Hospital’s Chief Executive Officer, Petros Matsas said on Thursday that the hospital had seen a 40 per cent reduction in visitors over all. Some outpatients did complain about the cost, even though the new charges are designed to be affordable across the board.
Others were fine about it. “They should have done this a long time ago,” a 70-year-old man told the Sunday Mail.
Andreas Eftychiou was queuing up to pick up a medicine prescription at Nicosia General Hospital on Thursday and said that paying a small fee was only fair. “All these old people would go away with bagfuls of medicines they didn’t need and ended up chucking half of them away,” he said. “This is better.”
Zena Lyssandrou, a 58-year-old teacher, praised the new system. “It is very important that we all contribute and help increase the state’s revenues,” she said. “Accident and Emergency (A & E) departments should be for those who really need them.”
Her husband had slipped and fallen, and needed to be admitted to hospital, and she was happy there was a tiny queue.
“People have been very helpful, and the service is good,” she said. At about 12.45pm on Thursday, she was one of less than a handful of people at the almost empty waiting room at the A & E. In the span of some twenty minutes, from 12.40pm to 1pm, there were very few visitors in the department. One couple walked in at 12.50pm, went up to pay the fee, and only waited for two minutes before being called in.
One man wanted to see a doctor for a non-emergency and was referred to the right department. A pharmacist at the hospital told the Sunday Mail that over the past few days, most people knew what they were doing and had come prepared with the stamps representing the nominal fees for their prescriptions already stuck on.
“A few did not know exactly what to do, so we did it for them,” she said. Some others needed to be sent away to one of the nine spots (the entrance’s main registration point and eight others in the hospital grounds), she said. Nicosia General Hospital only has specialist doctors and as such its traffic throughout the year tends to be more stable even though the summer can be quieter.
But many people tend to go to their local health centres. An 82-year-old from Nicosia said that sometimes she may need to wait for an hour or two before seeing someone, and sometimes she needs to wait less. But she knows one of the nurses who helps her jump the queue, she said. She might not be able to enjoy such privileges for much longer. One of the streamlined changes is the system’s computerisation, so that appointments and referrals can be made online. But until then, hospital fees may keep some patients away, and offer the overworked system a much needed breather.
The government have agreed with their international lenders to restructure public hospitals and implement measures to rationalise expenses. Because of austerity measures, the emphasis is on making better use of resources.
New changes were introduced on Thursday to discourage abuse of the overburdened system. Stamps – showing due fees have been paid – now need to accompany prescriptions and lab tests’ requests, which cost 50 cent per item but are capped at €10 per transaction. Beneficiaries now need to pay €3 to see a general practitioner, €6 to see a specialist doctor and €10 for using the state hospitals’ accident and emergency departments, which people tended to visit even in the absence of an emergency. The beneficiaries of the new system – with one health card across the board for Cypriot and other EU citizens permanently residing in the country – are civil servants in return for a 1.5 per cent contribution of gross salaries, and those who receive state pensions. Five-member families may be covered on the voluntary contribution of 1.5 per cent of their gross salaries. Some sufferers of chronic diseases, the dependents of beneficiaries, and certain vulnerable groups will continue being covered.
For the rest, there are sliding income criteria, while non-beneficiaries may also access the system on charges which compare favourable to the private sector and may even see a general practitioner for €15 and a specialist doctor for €30 to see specialist doctors.
The main reaction from the political front came predictably from opposition AKEL.
The party said that additional revenues from the introduction of hospital fees and wage contributions need to be channelled back into the health sector in order to bring about a much needed upgrade.
AKEL MP Stella Mishaouli said state hospitals and health centres needed new equipment and new units to extend or create facilities for dialysis, radiotherapy, and heart surgery. The estimated extra €50 million a year the changes are expected to fetch should go towards meeting those targets, she said.
Instead, the government plans to cut down health expenditure, she added. “The policy the current government are implementing will lead public hospitals to destruction. We believe state hospitals need to be the backbone of a national health system and in order to be capable of that they need to be upgraded and their infrastructure needs to be strengthened,” Mishaouli said.